Chronicle of the Month – February 2008

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Black Cinema – Why Should We Care?
By Sandrine Sahakians

sandrine_sahakians Unless you are Black or a Film Major, you probably don’t know much about the black cinema. That’s where I come in. Let me tell you about what you are missing and why you should care about black cinema.

I am sure you will be surprised to find out that black cinema played a role in turning points of the history of cinema. Some films that came out of it were pioneers in their fields.

Since it is impossible to cover ever aspect of the black cinema in one sitting, this month we will focus on gangster films. Why? Because after studying them, I have a whole new appreciation for them and would like to share that with you.

We will concentrate on three important films that came out in the early 1990s: New Jack City, Boyz N the Hood, and Menace II Society. All three films are usually mentioned together because they came out around the same time, and all dealt with the same subject matter, gangsters in the hood. What is interesting about each film is that it uses the history of the gangster genre and mixes it with the black culture to create stand-alone gangster films.

New Jack City (1991) – Directed by Mario Van Peebles (son of Melvin Van Peebles, a pioneer in black cinema with his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song back in 1971), the film focuses on a drug dealer, Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes), and his rise to the top.
This is an important film to look at because even though it featured an all black cast, New Jack City was not a “black film” as it was perceived until then, but a gangster film that paved the way for the future of the genre.
Fun Fact: The film features Chris Rock in one of his early roles.

Boyz N the Hood (1991) – Instead of showing the “glamour” of the gangster world, Boyz N the Hood focused on the flipside of that world and how it can all go wrong. It tells the story of Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and his two friends, Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube), living in South Central Los Angeles. Nominated for an Oscar for best director and best screenplay – both by John Singleton, Boyz N the Hood, seeks to warn young people of the dangers of the gangster life. In that way it can be paralleled to some early gangster films such as The Public Enemy (1931), in which gangsters eventually fall victims of their lifestyle.

Menace II Society (1993) – The film takes its roots in a much darker place than either New Jack City and Boyz N the Hood had been. It follows the story of Cain (Tyrin Turner) and his crew already part of the gangster world. Filled with violence and exposure of the gangster world, Menace II Society shocks and exposes the everyday workings of its lifestyle. Less focused on warning the public, Menace II Society seeks to give the audience an inside look at a different world, the world of gangsters in the “hood.”

Interestingly, these three films were influenced by older white gangster films and were able to revamp them to create a whole new era of gangster films.

That’s all for now, but make sure to check back soon for more wonderful film recommendation from the black cinema.

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